‘What is one night for me to sleep in my car?’

Fundraiser brings awareness of homelessness

By Darren Lum

For all the rugged outdoor beauty of the Highlands there is a challenging reality that faces many in this area: homelessness.

The second Sleeping in Cars event – in which participants collect pledges and sleep in their vehicle overnight mimicking what some have to do for shelter in the area – was officially cancelled this year due to efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Despite the cancellation the event went ahead for three individuals who slept in vehicles this past Friday helping to raise $2347 for the non-profit Places for People which works to secure affordable rental housing in Haliburton County for those at risk of homelessness and supports its tenants to make a positive difference in their lives.

Last year's event which was held in township parking lots in Minden Haliburton and Wilberforce not only raised $6000 for Places for People but it also raised awareness of housing shortages

Carnarvon's Kim Switzer is not just an outspoken advocate for Places for People but is a beneficiary of the organization's effort as a resident at the duplex owned by the organization.

Her experience makes it easy to spend the night in her truck with her 10-year-old daughter Hailey for the fundraiser.

"I've been without a home myself and I've been blessed to have this [residence]. We need more of this in our community" she said. ìWhat is one night for me to sleep in my car really? To raise awareness and kind of spread the word and to help get a bit of money fundraised … I couldn't do this and I couldn't do what I'm doing for my children right now if it wasn't for Places for People" she said. "I'd love to do more. If everybody did a little bit more … maybe it wouldn't be such a huge thing but there's too much homelessness and youth without places to go and it's crazy."

It's been two-and-a-half years since she moved into the three bedroom two bathroom unit with a backyard for her children. She continues to be grateful for the opportunity to get her life on track after a divorce left her with nothing.

She's not sure how it happened but is glad it did for her and her family.

ìI have no idea other than some kind of blessing this place came up. I thought I was going to be bounced over to Fenelon Falls and [have to live in] some little … rundown apartment type of thing. I had no idea what was going to happen. For whatever reason this place came up. It's taken me a long time to call it home but it's been awesome and I'm truly blessed and I'm truly thankful to have it" she said.

Life hasn't been perfect since moving in but she's adjusted and made it home.

"Without it I don't know where I'd be" she said.

Switzer was left with few options several years ago.

With a Grade 12 education and being a stay-at-home mother who home schooled her children for 12 years Switzer ended up at the YWCA shelter where she lived for several months with her three children worried for the future terrified of not having a home.

Having the home has enabled her to work through challenges. The security of a safe place helped her to go back to school completing courses at Fleming College obtaining certificates in wilderness and outdoor courses.

"It has allowed me to grow and is still allowing me to grow" she said.

It led to her forming her own service business two years ago doing work at residences or at Airbnbs such as landscaping cleaning or taking garbage to the landfill.

"It's really what does somebody need? Do they need a helping hand because I know what it's like to not have help" she said.

The other participants were Sylvia Claridge and Val Jarvis who invited Claridge to join her in her driveway for the evening. Claridge was the top fundraiser for the second consecutive year having raised $1012 for Places for People.

They both knew harrowing stories of young people who didn't have alternatives to being homeless. One was a teenage boy sleeping in a bank lobby in Haliburton because of a fight with his mother who he reconciled with later.

Another was a young man in his 20s who slept in a field in Carnarvon during the winter with the temperatures well below freezing. His only method of protecting himself against the elements was to cover up with a tarp and old coats for warmth lying on a pallet.

Claridge visited him and tried to help giving food. His only fear was wolves she said. He slept with a knife. Sometimes he would seek shelter in cabins so he could eat his canned beans which would otherwise freeze outside.

Places for People's vice-president Fay Martin said she was grateful to these people for sleeping in their cars and taking pledges on their own. During this time when the message is to go home it's difficult for some people she said.

"To me this is a huge thing. We say 'Go home. Go home. Go home.' But what if you don't have a home right? What if the home you have is like not a healthy place to be either socially or physically healthy place to be? Then you're kind of up the creek without a paddle" she said. "I think with just the ease with which we say 'Go home. Go home. Go home' as if everybody has one. When we know everybody doesn't have one … to me there is that irony. It just doesn't feel like the right time to kind of go all preachy about that because everyone is so preoccupied with other things."

She was in favour of people sleeping in cars for the fundraiser as long as it was abiding by the coronavirus safety protocols.

Switzer who has volunteered to work with high school students said there are a lot of youth who are "couch hopping" and need places to go and things to do. She wishes there were more affordable accommodations available.

In speaking with people she said there are some women who stay in abusive relationships to "have a roof over their heads. That's not good but where else are they going to go? What else can they afford?"

She wishes people unfamiliar with what challenges youth face whether it's a home life that isn't stable due to a lack of finances or abuse they face would open their eyes.

"Maybe we don't see the stuff like we see in Toronto where there's sleeping bags on the side of the road but who's to say that isn't happening in some places. Maybe we don't know too much about it all?" she said.

If interested in donating see www.placesforpeople.ca.